By Mali Friedman and Simon Frankel

With all eyes on the Affordable Care Act today, the United States Supreme Court also quietly dismissed a case that could have had a profound impact on a wide range of citizens’ rights litigation—First American Financial Corp. v. Edwards.  Stating only that the writ of certiorari had been “improvidently granted,” the Court skirted an opportunity to clarify the limits of Article III standing and the ability of a plaintiff to seek damages under laws allowing for statutory damages even in the absence of any other specific and concrete injury to the plaintiff. 

In Edwards, the Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff had standing to sue under the anti-kickback provision of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (which provides that a party can be liable for violating the statute in “an amount equal to three times the amount of any charge paid for such settlement service”), even though neither plaintiff nor any member of the putative class could allege that he personally was overcharged because of defendant’s conduct.  This was because, the Ninth Circuit found, Article III may exist by virtue of “statutes creating legal rights, the invasion of which creates standing.”  By contrast, other courts have held (and numerous groups argued in amicus briefs to the Supreme Court) that Article III’s “case” or “controversy” requirement means that a person must have suffered a specific injury (apart from the availability of statutory damages) in order to sue to enforce any federal law.  The issue has had significant implications for recent online privacy litigation, where plaintiffs often allege violations of federal statutes and seek corresponding statutory damages without asserting that the alleged privacy violation cased them actual harm, such as monetary loss.